Criminal Law

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What is Assault?

Many people believe that assault is a crime that requires actual physical violence to take place, but that isn't always the case. The crime of assault is a broad category, including any threat of or attempt to physically harm another individual. Unwanted touching of another person, or a threat to do so, also qualifies as assault.

From a legal perspective, the victim must have knowledge of the threat of violence or unwanted touching for an offense to fall under the category of assault.

Types of Assault

There are several different types of assault. Some types of assault are considered more serious in the eyes of the law than others. Understanding these differences is important, especially if you are charged with assault.

  • Verbal assault is the charge when the manner of attack is largely oral threats causing psychological or emotional injury.
  • Sexual assault charges result from threats of sexual violence or physical sexual violence made against the victim. If a victim is fearful of sexual molestation, rape, or other unwanted and offensive sexual touching because of threats, you might still face sexual assault charges.
  • Simple assault takes place when a victim is attacked without a weapon, and the victim's injuries are minor or superficial in scope. In many cases, punching someone constitutes simple assault.
  • Felony assault or felonious assault is a broad category of offense in which the victim suffers serious bodily harm, or an attacker used a weapon in the assault. If a weapon is used, regardless of the nature or severity of the injuries incurred by the victim, felony assault is likely to be the result. Aggravated assault charges fall under the felony assault category, as they are considered a crime too serious to be categorized as a misdemeanor.

Keep in mind, different states use different terms when naming criminal offenses. For example, your state not having a "verbal assault" charge does not mean there is not another offense that covers this behavior.

Assault vs. Battery: What's the Difference?

The easiest way to determine the difference between assault and battery is to note that assault can take place even if the violence in a particular altercation is limited to verbal threats. Battery charges, however, require physical touching between the alleged offender and the alleged victim.

Simple battery charges can result even if the physical contact is light or involves the use of a third-party item, like a stick or a pamphlet. Simple battery charges are classified as misdemeanors. Some states do not have specific battery offenses and categorize all offenses as a type of assault.

What Is Aggravated Assault or Battery?

Aggravated assault — or aggravated battery in some jurisdictions — is a more serious charge than simple assault. Assaults involving deadly weapons like knives or guns are typically considered aggravated assaults, as are assaults where the perpetrator clearly intends to kill, rape, or seriously harm the victim. Aggravated battery charges are only different from aggravated assault charges if the alleged offender actually touched the alleged victim.

Another branch of aggravated assault takes place in specific relationships that may make the crime of assault more serious. For example, caretakers responsible for the lives of patients who cannot care for themselves could face aggravated assault charges if they threaten or inappropriately touch the people they are caring for.

How to Prove Assault

To prove any assault or battery charges (simple or aggravated), prosecutors will need to prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.

In instances where prosecutors are arguing in favor of aggravated assault or battery charges, the prosecutors must also prove the aggravating factors themselves, such as:

  • The use of a deadly weapon
  • The infliction of grievous bodily harm
  • Whether any victims are members of a protected class
  • Intent to commit further crimes following the assault

Just like in any criminal case, prosecutors and police will look for witnesses and physical evidence to prove guilt.

Penalty for Assault

The penalty for both simple and aggravated assault criminal charges depends largely on the jurisdiction, the presiding judge, and the factors of each case.

Simple assault, which is generally a misdemeanor, can carry a jail sentence of six months to one year. In cases where the perpetrator was a first-time offender or where the judge views the harmful outcomes as minimal, penalties might include probation, community service, mandatory attendance in an educational program, or other restitution.

Aggravated assault charges are usually felonies that carry more serious penalties. Though state guidelines and individual judgments vary, a prison sentence ranging from one to 20 years is possible.

Possible Defense Against Assault Charges

If you are charged with assault, there are different defense strategies available. These include being forced into action by duress, acting only in self-defense, and being the subject of a false accusation by the alleged victim.

Frequent defenses against charges of battery include not actually touching the alleged victim (whether having missed an intended swing or not), not acting willfully, facing false accusations, or police lacking probable cause (attacking the arrest process, for example).